Investigate Before You Terminate

A business owner from Maryland called me the other day for approval to terminate an employee who allegedly used drugs on company time.  The owner was emphatic that he did not want “crack heads” working at his company.  While I fundamentally agree with his position, I tried to calm down the animated owner and get the facts before a rash termination was going to be conducted.

The owner informed me that after a daily work shift was over, the company mechanic saw a crack-pipe on the center counsel of a company truck and reported it to the owner.  Incensed, the owner immediately called me regarding the anticipated termination process based on the company’s zero-tolerance drug policy.  While sympathetic to the owner’s desire, I repeatedly recommended that he conduct an investigation prior to terminating the employee.

He became very aggressive and implied that I had a soft spot for “crack heads” in my bleeding human resources heart.  Despite such comical protestations, I remained steadfast and told the owner to:

(1) interview the alleged “crack head”,

(2) interview all of the crew members who were in the truck that same day,

(3) verify that we had the employee’s signed Employee Handbook Acknowledgment Form in our possession, and

(4) based on the company’s reasonable suspicion drug testing policy found in the employee handbook, send the alleged “crack head” to the local MPN clinic for a drug test.

Reluctantly, the owner acquiesced to my suggestions.

Two days later, I called the owner for a status check on this issue.  Sheepishly, the owner told me that the drug test came back “negative,” the crew members unanimously stated the Crew Leader did not smoke crack on the job, and the Crew Leader informed the owner of the actual events.  Apparently, while mowing a customer’s lawn, the Crew Leader saw a colorful object laying under a tree.  Taken by its bright yellow and pink coloration, the Crew Leader picked up the object, not knowing it was a drug-related item, and placed it in the cab of the truck to bring it home as a type of gift.  At the end of the work shift, the Crew Leader forget about the object and left it in the center counsel, ultimately being discovered by the mechanic.

Though incredulous, and somewhat humbled, the owner regretted his initial fervor and asked me for follow-up advice on this situation.  Aside from at-will considerations, I informed the owner that he should probably write-up the Crew Leader for having drug paraphernalia in a company vehicle (i.e., Drug policy violation), and move forward.  He agreed, and all went well with the eventual documentation process.

I explained to the owner that had we rushed to judgment and not conducted the investigation (which only took one day), the company could have been vulnerable to a wrongful termination claim by a Hispanic male over the age of 40 years.

If you have any questions or comments about this topic or anything else related to human resources, simply call me at (760) 685-3800.


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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 34 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.